Days of the Discoverers Part 14



If the Fathers of the Church had ever been on the other side of the world, they would have made new rules for it.

So thought Jeronimo Aguilar, on board a caravel plying between Darien and Hispaniola. It was a thought he would hardly have dared think in Spain.

He was a dark thin young friar from the mountains near Seville. In 1488 his mother, waiting, as women must, for news from the wars, vowed that if God and the Most Catholic Sovereigns drove out the Moors and sent her husband home to her, she would give her infant son to the Church. That was twenty-four years ago, and never had the power of the Church been so great as it now was. When the young Fray Jeronimo had been moved by fiery missionary preaching to give himself to the work among the Indians, his mother wept with astonishment and pride.

But the Indies he found were not the Indies he had heard of. Men who sailed from Cadiz valiant if rough and hard-bitted soldiers of the Cross, turned into cruel adventurers greedy for gold, hard masters abusing their power. The innocent wild people of Colon's island Eden were charged by the planters with treachery, theft, murderous conspiracy, and utter laziness. With a little bitter smile Aguilar remembered how the hidalgo, who would not dig to save his life, railed at the Indian who died of the work he had never learned to do. It was not for a priest to oppose the policy of the Church and the Crown, and very few priests attempted it, whatever cruelty they might see. Aguilar half imagined that the demon gods of the heathen were battling against the invading apostles of the Cross, poisoning their hearts and defeating their aims. It was all like an evil enchantment.

These meditations were ended by a mighty buffet of wind that smote the caravel and sent it flying northwest. Ourakan was abroad, the Carib god of the hurricane, and no one could think of anything thereafter but the heaving, tumbling wilderness of black waves and howling tempest and hissing spray. Valdivia, regidor of Darien, had been sent to Hispaniola by Balboa, the governor, with important letters and a rich tribute of gold, to get supplies and reinforcements for the colony. Shipwreck would be disastrous to Balboa and his people as well as to the voyagers.

Headlong the staggering ship was driven upon Los Viboros, (The Vipers) that infamous group of hidden rocks off Jamaica. She was pounded to pieces almost before Valdivia could get his one boat into the water, with its crew of twenty men. Without food or drink, sails or proper oars, the survivors tossed for thirteen dreadful days on the uncharted cross-currents of unknown seas. Seven died of hunger, thirst and exposure before the tide that drifted northwest along the coast of the mainland caught them and swept them ashore.

None of them had ever seen this coast. Valdivia cherished a faint hope that it might be a part of the kingdom of walled cities and golden temples, of which they had all heard. There were traces of human presence, and they could see a cone-shaped low hill with a stone temple or building of some kind on the top. Natives presently appeared, but they broke the boat in pieces and dragged the castaways inland through the forest to the house of their cacique.

That chief, a villainous looking savage in a thatched hut, looked at them as if they had been cattle--or slaves--or condemned heretics. What they thought, felt or hoped was nothing to him. He ordered them taken to a kind of pen, where they were fed. So great is the power of the body over the mind that for a few days they hardly thought of anything but the unspeakable joy of having enough to eat and drink, and nothing to do but sleep. The cacique visited the enclosure now and then, and looked them over with a calculating eye. Aguilar was haunted by the idea that this inspection meant something unpleasant.

All too soon the meaning was made known to them. Valdivia and four other men who were now less gaunt and famine-stricken than when captured, were seized and taken away, to be sacrificed to the gods.

It was the custom of the Mayas of Yucatan to sacrifice human beings, captives or slaves for choice, to the gods in whose honor the stone pyramids were raised. When the victim had been led up the winding stairway to the top, the central figure in a procession of priests and attendants, he was laid upon a stone altar and his heart was cut out and offered to the idol, after which the body was eaten at a ceremonial feast. The eight captives who remained now understood that the food they had had was meant merely to fatten them for future sacrifice. Half mad with horror, they crouched in the hot moist darkness, and listened to the uproar of the savages.

A strong young sailor by the name of Gonzalo Guerrero, who had done good service during the hurricane, pulled Jeronimo by the sleeve, "What in the name of all the saints can we do, Padre?" he muttered. "Jose and the rest will be raving maniacs."

Aguilar straightened himself and rose to his feet where the rays of the moon, white and calm, shone into the enclosure. Lifting his hands to heaven he began to pray.

All he had learned from books and from the disputations and sermons of the Fathers fell away from him and left only the bare scaffolding, the faith of his childhood. At the familiar syllables of the Ave Maria the shuddering sailors hushed their cries and oaths and listened, on their knees.

This was a handful of castaways in the clutch of a race of man-eaters who worshiped demons. But above them bent the tender and pitiful Mother of Christ who had seen her Son crucified, and Christ Himself stood surrounded by innumerable witnesses. Among the saints were some who had died at the hands of the heathen, many who had died by torture. The poor and ignorant men who listened were caught up for the moment into the vision of Fray Jeronimo and regained their self-control. When the prayer was ended Gonzalo Guerrero sprang up, and rallied them to furious labor.

Under his direction and Aguilar's they dug and wrenched at their cage like desperate rats, until they broke away enough of it just to let a man's body through. Aguilar was the last to go. He closed the hole and heaped rubbish outside it, as rubbish and branches had been piled where they were used to sleep, to delay as long as possible the discovery of their escape. They got clear away into the depths of the forest.

But for men without provisions or weapons the wilderness of that unknown land was only less dreadful than death. Trees and vines barren of fruit, streams where a huge horny lizard ate all the fish--El Lagarto he was called by the discoverers,--no grain or cattle which might be taken by stealth--this was the realm into which they had been exiled. When they ventured out of the forest, driven by famine, they were captured by Acan Xooc, the cacique of another province, Jamacana. Here they were made slaves, to cut wood, carry water and bear burdens. Water was scarce in that region. There had been reservoirs, built in an earlier day, but these were ruined, and water had to be carried in earthern jars. The cacique died, and another named Taxmar succeeded him. Year after year passed. The soul of one worn-out white man slipped away, followed by another, and another, until only Aguilar and Guerrero were left alive.

Taxmar sent the sailor as a present to a friend, cacique of Chatemal, but kept Aguilar for himself, watching his ways.

The cacique was a sagacious heathen of considerable experience, but he had never seen a man like this one. Jeronimo was now almost as dark as an Indian and had not a scrap of civilized clothing, yet he was unlike the other white men, unlike any other slave. He had a string of dried berries with a cross made of reeds hung from it, which he sometimes appeared to be counting, talking to himself in his own language. Taxmar had once seen a slave from the north who had been a priest in his own country and knew how to remember things by string-talk, knotting a string in a peculiar fashion; but he was not like this man. When the white slave saw the crosses carved on their old walls he had eagerly asked how they came there, and Taxmar gathered that the cross had some meaning in the captive's own religion. He never lied, never stole, never got angry, never tattled of the other slaves, never disobeyed orders, never lost his temper. Taxmar could not remember when he himself had ever been restrained by anything but policy from taking whatever he wanted. Here was a man who could deny himself even food at times, when he was not compelled to. Taxmar could not understand.

What he did not know was, that when he had escaped from the cannibals Aguilar had made a fresh vow to keep with all strictness every vow of his priesthood, and to bear his lot with patience and meekness until it should be the will of God to free him from the savages. He had begun to think that this freedom would never be his in his lifetime, but a vow was a vow. He no more suspected that Taxmar was taking note of his behavior, than a man standing in front of the lion's cage at the menagerie can translate the thoughts behind the great cat's intent eyes.

Taxmar began to try experiments. He invented temptations to put in the way of his slave, but Aguilar generally did not seem to see them. One day the Indians were shooting at a mark. One came up to Aguilar and seized him by the arm.

"How would you like to be shot at?" he said. "These bowmen hit whatever they aim at--if they aim at a nose they hit a nose. They can shoot so near you that they miss only by the breadth of a grain of corn--or do not miss at all."

Aguilar never flinched, although from what he knew of the savages he thought nothing more likely than his being set up for a San Sebastian.

He answered quietly,

"I am your slave, and you can do with me what you please. I think you are too wise to destroy one who is both useful and obedient."

The suggestion had been made by the order of Taxmar, and the answer was duly reported to him.

It took a long time to satisfy the chief that this man who seemed so extraordinary was really what he seemed. He came at last to trust him wholly, even making him the steward of his household and leaving him to protect his women in his absence. Finding the chief thus disposed, Aguilar ventured a suggestion. Guerrera had won great favor with his master by his valor in war. Aguilar was shrewd enough to know that though it was very pleasant to have his master's confidence, if anything happened to Taxmar he might be all the worse off. The only sure way to win the respect of these barbarians was by efficiency as a soldier.

Taxmar upon request gave his steward the military outfit of the Mayas--bow and arrows, wicker-work shield, and war-club, with a dagger of obsidian, a volcanic stone very hard and capable of being made very keen of edge, but brittle. Jeronimo when a boy had been an expert archer, and his old skill soon returned. He also remembered warlike devices and stratagems he had seen and heard of. Old soldiers chatting with his father in the purple twilight had often fought their battles over again, and nearly every form of military tactics then known to civilized armies had been used in the war in Granada. Naturally the young friar had heard more or less discussion of military campaigns in Darien. His suggestions were so much to the point that Taxmar had an increased respect for the gods of that unknown land of his. If they could do so much for this slave, without even demanding any offerings, they must be very different from the gods of the Mayas.

In reply to Taxmar's questions, Aguilar, who now spoke the language quite well, endeavored to explain the nature of his religion. Not many of the Spaniards who expected to convert the Indians went so far as this. If they could by any means whatever make their subjects call themselves Christians and observe the customs of the Church, it was all they attempted. Taxmar was not the sort of person to be converted in that informal way. He demanded reasons. If Aguilar advised him against having unhappy people murdered to bribe the gods for their help in the coming campaign, he wished to know what the objection was, and what the white chiefs did in such a case. The idea of sacrificing to one's god, not the lives of men, but one's own will and selfish desires, was entirely new to him.

While Jeronimo was still wrestling with the problem of making the Christian faith clear to one single Indian out of the multitudes of the heathen, a neighboring cacique appeared on the scene,--jealous, angry and suspicious. He had heard, he said, that Taxmar sought the aid of a stranger, who worshiped strange gods, in a campaign directed against his neighbors. He wished to know if Taxmar considered this right. In his own opinion this stranger ought to be sacrificed to the gods of the Mayas after the usual custom, or the gods would be angry,--and then no one knew what would happen.

Aguilar thought it possible that Taxmar might reply that the conduct of an army was no one's business but the chief's. That would be in line with the cacique's character as he knew it. He did not expect that any chief in that ancient land would dare to defy its gods openly.

Taxmar did not meet the challenge at once. His deep set opaque black eyes and mastiff-like mouth looked as immovable as the carving on the basalt stool upon which he sat. The cacique thought he was impressed, and concluded triumphantly,

"Who can resist the gods? Let the altar drink the blood of the stranger; it is sweet to them and they will sleep, and not wake."

"I shall do nothing of the kind," said Taxmar, the clicking, bubbling Maya talk dropping like water on hot stones. "When a man serves me well, I do not reward him with death. My slave's wisdom is greater than the craft of Coyotl, and if his gods help me it is because they know enough to do right."

The other chief went home in rage and disappointment and offended dignity.

No one, who has not tried it, can imagine the sensation of living in a hostile land, removed from all that is familiar. Until his captivity began Aguilar had never been obliged to act for himself. He had always been under the authority of a superior. He had questioned and wondered, seen the injustice of this thing and that, but only in his own mind.

When everything in his past life had been swept away at one stroke, his faith alone was left him in the wrecked and distorted world. He had never dreamed that Taxmar was learning to respect that faith.

The neighboring cacique now joined Taxmar's enemies with all his army, and the councilors took alarm and repeated the suggestion that Aguilar should be sacrificed to make sure of the help of the gods. Taxmar again spoke plainly.

"Our gods," he said, "have helped us when we were strong and powerful and sacrificed many captives in their honor. This man's gods help him when he is a slave, alone, far from his people, with nothing to offer in sacrifice. We will see now what they will do for my army."

In the battle which followed, the cacique adopted a plan which Aguilar suggested. That loyal follower was placed in command of a force hidden in the woods near the route by which the enemy would arrive. The hostile forces marched past it, and charged upon the front of Taxmar's army. It gave way, and they rushed in with triumphant yells. When they were well past, Aguilar's division came out of the bushes and took them in the rear. At the same instant Taxmar and his warriors faced about and sprang at them like a host of panthers. There was a great slaughter, many prisoners were taken, among them the cacique himself and many men of importance; and Taxmar made a little speech to them upon the wisdom of the white man's gods.

In the years that passed the captive's hope of escape faded. Once he had thought he might slip away and reach the coast, but he was too carefully watched. Even if he could get to the sea from so far inland, without the help of the natives, he could not reach any Spanish colony without a boat. There were rumors of strange ships filled with bearded men, whose weapons were the thunder and the lightning. Old people wagged their heads and recalled a prophecy of the priest Chilam Cambal many years ago, that a white people, bearded, would come from the east, to overturn the images of the gods, and conquer the land.

Hernando de Cordova's squadron came and went; Grijalva's came and went; Aguilar heard of them but never saw them. At last, seven long years after he came to Jamacana, three coast Indians from the island of Cozumel came timidly to the cacique with gifts and a letter. The gifts were for Taxmar, to buy his Christian slaves, if he had any, and the letter was for them.

Hernando Cortes, coming from Cuba with a squadron to discover and conquer the land ruled by the Lord of the Golden House, had stopped at Cozumel and there heard of white men held as captives somewhere inland.

He had persuaded the Indians to send messengers for them, saying that if the captives were sent to the sea-coast, at the cape of Cotoche, he would leave two caravels there eight days, to wait for them.

While Aguilar read this letter the Indians were telling of the water-houses of the strangers, their sharp weapons, their command of thunder and lightning, and the wonderful presents they gave in exchange for what they wanted. Aguilar's account of the squadron was even more complete. He described the dress of the Spaniards, their weapons and their manner of life without having seen them at all, and the Indians, when asked, said it was so.

Taxmar's acute mind was adjusting itself to this event, which was not altogether unexpected. He had heard more than Aguilar had about the previous visits of the Spaniards to that coast. He asked Aguilar if he thought that the strange warriors would accept him, their countryman, as ambassador, and deal mildly with Taxmar and his people, if they let him go. Aguilar answered that he thought they would.

Now freedom was within his grasp, and only one thing delayed him. He could not leave his comrade Guerrero behind. The sailor had married the daughter of a chief and become a great man in his adopted country.

Aguilar sent Indian messengers with the letter and a verbal message, and waited.

Guerrero had never known much about reading, and he had forgotten nearly all he knew. He understood, however, that he could now return to Spain.

Before his eyes rose a picture of the lofty austere sierras, the sunny vineyards, the wine, so unlike pulque, the bread, so unlike flat cakes of maize, the maidens of Barcelona and Malaga, so very different from tattooed Indian girls. And then he surveyed his own brawny arms and legs, and felt of his own grotesquely ornamented countenance.

To please the taste of his adopted people he had let himself be decorated as they were, for life,--with tattooed pictures, with nose-ring, with ear-rings of gold set with rudely cut gems and heavy enough to drag down the lobe of the ear. He would cut a figure in the streets of Seville. The little boys would run after him as if he were a show. He grinned, sighed mightily, and sent word to Aguilar that he thought it wiser to stay where he was. Aguilar set out for the coast with the Cozumel Indians, but this delay had consumed all of the eight days appointed, and when they reached Point Cotoche the caravels had gone.

But a broken canoe and a stave from a water-barrel lay on the beach, and with the help of the messengers Aguilar patched up the canoe, and with the board for a paddle, made the canoe serve his need. Following the coast they came to the narrowest part of the channel between the mainland and Cozumel, and in spite of a very strong current got across to the island. No sooner had they landed when some Spaniards rushed out of the bushes, with drawn swords. The Indians were about to fly in terror, but Aguilar called to them in their own language to have no fear. Then he spoke to the Spaniards in broken Castilian, saying that he was a Christian, fell on his knees and thanked God that he had lived to hear his own language again.

Chapter end

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